Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
[A brief explanation of my Compilation Or Catalog? series: Although I tend to be a completist, owning everything an artist has released, occasionally the only album I own is a compilation. This can often be a stepping-stone to exploring more of their work, but sometimes a “Best Of” or “Greatest Hits” is the only thing I’ve heard. With this series I ask my readers to let me know if the compilation I have is sufficient or if there are specific albums I should check out. Normally I revisit the entire recorded output of a particular artist over numerous posts, which is the main purpose of this blog, but this gives me an opportunity to learn more about some lesser-known & less-explored artists in my collection]
Echo & The Bunnymen was a group I knew about in the ‘80s but never investigated their music. As a fan of guitar-oriented rock music back then, I lumped them in with the more synth-based British bands of the era like Depeche Mode, New Order, Psychedelic Furs, Simple Minds, The Cure, etc. I did enjoy some songs by those artists, as well as Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw, Spandau Ballet & others, but by 1983 I was enthralled by a triumvirate of new guitar rock bands: U2, The Alarm and Big Country. It wasn’t until sometime in the ‘90s that I decided to check out Echo & The Bunnymen, and the obvious entry into their catalog was the single-disc compilation Song To Learn & Sing (1985). This collection includes 11 songs recorded between 1980 & 1985, covering highlights of their first four albums with a few singles and b-sides thrown in. The lineup during this time was Ian McCulloch (vocals & guitar), Will Sergeant (lead guitar), Les Pattinson (bass) and Pete de Freitas (drums), and I really came to appreciate their musicianship the more I played this CD. I also realized that they’re nearly as much of a guitar band as the others I mentioned, and I wish I had given them a chance back then.
“Rescue” has a great chiming guitar pattern and over-enunciated vocals that point to U2 and The Alarm (a comparison that applies to many of the songs here). I love the way it opens up for the chorus (“Won’t you come on down to my…rescue?”) and the confessional lyrics (“Things are going wrong, can you tell that in a song?”). “The Puppet” has a driving, propulsive rhythm with more chiming guitar and a great chorus (“You knew about this with your head in your hands, all along I was the puppet”). Pattinson’s bass line and Sergeant’s guitar tone are the highlights of the instrumental section.
Two songs didn’t make as much of an impression on me as the others, but they’re still notable. “Do It Clean” has a garage rock looseness with a lot of energy. I just didn’t find it terribly catchy. “A Promise” has McCulloch delivering some over-the-top whiny vocals, a la The Cure’s Robert Smith, atop an REM-esque jangly pop arrangement. The big chorus, where he shouts the title, was made for arenas & stadiums. “The Back of Love” has that classic ‘80s production sound, with big echo-y drums and synth strings. I love the stabbing staccato guitar pattern and the melody at “When you say it’s love, d’you mean the back of love?” “The Cutter” is a highlight among highlights. The middle-eastern melody (on guitar? synth?) in the intro & instrumental sections immediately caught my attention. The melody in the chorus is super-catchy (“spare us the cutter, spare us the cutter, couldn’t cut the mustard”), and they introduce a Celtic vibe after the second time he sings, “not just another drop in the ocean.”
I love the 3-note synth bubbles that float above the insistent strings & steady beat of “Never Stop.” It sounds like an update of early Roxy Music, with an extended instrumental intro and an instantly memorable chorus (“Measure by measure, drop by drop…the love you found must never stop”). “The Killing Moon” is slower & moodier, with a haunting melody and husky vocals. The arrangement is simply perfect, with piano, acoustic guitar, various effects and powerful vocals. The chorus is another instant classic (“Fate, up against your will, through thick and thin…”). The sweeping strings on “Silver” add a dramatic effect to this epic love song (“Just look at you with burning lips, you’re living proof at my fingertips”). The guitar solo (on 12-string, I believe) has a jangly, Roger McGuinn sound. “Seven Seas” is driven by a pulsating, walking bass line, and features another 12-string guitar solo. It’s a wonderful song with an amazing chorus (“Seven seas…swimming them so well”).
“Bring On The Dancing Horses” was the only new song on this collection, having been written specifically for the John Hughes film, Pretty In Pink. I wasn’t a huge fan of Hughes’ “Brat Pack” films, even though I saw most of them when they were released, so I never had a connection to any of the music in the movies or on the soundtracks. Even without any emotional ties to this song, I quickly latched onto it. It’s moody and melodic at the same time, with a steady programmed beat and shimmering synth. There’s a great hook at, “first I’m gonna make it, then I’m gonna break it ‘til it falls apart,” and it’s hard to believe this was just a minor hit for them.
The only other Echo & The Bunnymen song I’m familiar with is “Lips Like Sugar,” which appeared on the studio album released immediately after Songs To Learn & Sing. Having heard it a number of times recently at the gym, it was probably my initial impetus for revisiting this compilation. Now that I’ve given it a number of listens and fallen in love with most of the songs, I’m asking my readers to let me know what else I should check out from their discography. Their first five albums are available in a reasonably priced mini-box called Original Album Series, which packages five CDs in replica mini-LP sleeves, but doesn’t include any liner notes, lyrics or bonus tracks. Those albums have also been expanded & remastered, but collecting them individually would cost more than the mini box set. They’ve released six albums since their ‘80s heyday, one of which featured a different singer after McCulloch left the band, before he reunited with Sergeant as Echo & The Bunnymen in the late-‘90s. Are any of those records worth checking out? There’s also a deluxe, career-spanning 4-CD box set called Crystal Days: 1979-1999,which could be a good option if you think I’m better off with a broad overview instead of purchasing specific albums. I’m pleasantly surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed their music this past week, and I look forward to hearing more. Your feedback will be very helpful in deciding how deeply I dive into their catalog. Thanks for your assistance.
UPDATE, DECEMBER 14, 2013: Since I posted this “Compilation Or Catalog?” entry in April, a number of very devoted Echo & The Bunnymen fans chimed in with very good suggestions. It was immediately clear that they’re not simply a Compilation artist, especially if that compilation is the relatively brief single-CD collection, Songs To Learn & Sing, which had been my only prior exposure to their music. However, even the most dedicated fans admitted that I might not need to hear everything from this influential band, but that their first four albums (Crocodiles, Heaven Up Here, Porcupine and Ocean Rain) are beyond essential. To a lesser extent, it was suggested that their fifth album (simply titled Echo & The Bunnymen) was worth checking out, if for no other reason than to have the infectious hit single, “Lips Like Sugar.” During a record shopping excursion shortly after completing this post, I was fortunate to find expanded CDs of three of the original albums at very reasonable prices, as well as the 4-CD career-spanning box set, Crystal Days: 1979-1999, which I couldn’t pass up. A few weeks later I found the others (also in expanded CD format), and I’m now the proud owner of everything that was recommended as well as a box set that includes rarities & some later recordings not included on those individual albums. After listening to each of them at least twice I realize that I had missed out on some great music by an amazing band for all these years. Although I probably won’t be getting their post-reunion albums anytime soon, nor will I explore Ian McCulloch’s solo output, they’re much closer to being a Catalog artist for me now. If you’re stopping by for the first time and think (like I did) that a single CD can capture everything you need to hear from Echo & The Bunnymen, I can join the chorus of fans who strongly recommended their first four albums. Thank you to everyone who pointed me in the right direction.